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Amidst the Covid-19 pandemic, a gigantic effort for the relocation of unaccompanied children from the islands of the North-East Aegean to Germany

As soon as Germany announced its decision to receive and host unaccompanied children from the Greek islands’ overcrowded and ill-equipped refugee and migrant camps, a massive effort got underway to ensure that all the necessary paperwork was completed, and the children escorted safely to the mainland, in a very limited period of time. In cooperation with the UN High Commission for Refugees, METAdrasi, an organization with a 10-year track record in the protection of unaccompanied children in Greece, immediately stepped into action. It was not an easy task. METAdrasi’s accredited Guardians on the islands had to work round-the-clock last weekend and through until Tuesday to complete the extremely demanding goal of preparing a special personal file for each of the selected children. This role emphasized yet again the critical function of the Guardians in safeguarding unaccompanied children’s best interests. Working closely with the Ministry of Migration’s General Secretariat for the Protection of Unaccompanied Children, as well as with the staff of the RIC Centres and the Asylum Offices in the islands, all the necessary procedures and processes were completed in an extremely short timeframe, in order for the selected children to be accepted and be ready to travel.

But the “race against time” didn’t end there. The baton was passed on to the METAdrasi escorts, who had to ensure the urgent safe transport of the children to Athens so that they could make their onward journey to Germany from there; and this had to be achieved against the background of the pandemic, with severe transport restrictions in place, very limited boat schedules and of course respecting all the necessary public health guidelines. Within a very few hours, all the necessary public prosecutor orders had to be obtained, all the travel documents for each child to be prepared, the children had to prepare for their sudden move to a new country and a new life, and then they had to be taken to the port.  The escorts were able to travel on the ship from Samos with six children on Good Monday, on the last scheduled boat before Good Thursday, which they just made in time.  The next team of escorts with 11 children from Chios arrived in Athens on Good Tuesday, and at dawn on Good Wednesday a further 35 children from Lesvos arrived, after a dramatic boarding in Lesvos where they literally had to jump on to the ship at the last minute as it was just pulling out of the harbor. On Good Thursday we managed to secure the transport of a further two, very young siblings, a girl and a boy, from the METAdrasi shelter in Samos to join the others in their new beginning in Germany. These four escorting missions proved to be amongst the most complex and demanding of the 5,100 missions in total undertaken by METAdrasi over the past nine years. This huge effort would not have met with success were it not for the full backing and commitment of all the public prosecutors in the islands (Lesvos, Chios, Samos) and the generous support of Blue Star Ferries which once again offered free tickets for the safe transport of the children.

“Having over the past two years continuously and systematically pressed for fairer responsibility-sharing for unaccompanied children amongst EU countries, we are extremely happy and grateful that the relocation of a number of such children to Germany is at last a reality.  When we had first heard that Luxembourg would accept 12 children, but that they had to be from Syria, less than 14 years old and without family reunification prospects, we had felt once again that a game was being played. We knew that the vast majority of children from Syria had relatives in other European countries, and so would not have been eligible”, stated Lora Pappa, METAdrasi President.

The step taken by Germany is therefore very significant. Whereas Germany had also started with highly restrictive and unrealistic criteria of children having to be only girls under 14 with serious health issues, they later relaxed these criteria to include any children under 14, irrespective of sex, country of origin and reunification status.  This shows that when the political will truly exists, relocations can be implemented very quickly.

“I sincerely hope that Germany’s exceptional example of solidarity will now be followed by other EU countries, so that we can achieve the relocation of the remaining 1,600 unaccompanied children living in unacceptable conditions on the islands and the mainland. The immediate, massive and superb team effort that coordinated this relocation on the ground in Greece was a unique achievement. We hope that this success will signal the beginning of a new period of trust from EU member countries towards our country’s authorities who, working closely with local and international NGOs with a proven track record and a front-line presence in the field, can credibly now set the relocation criteria themselves, thus ensuring the best interests of the children concerned”, Mrs Pappa concluded.

Heartbreaking scenes from the collection of an unaccompanied child from the camp in Samos, where the whole “neighbourhood” has come out to bid him farewell with shouts and waves of victory and encouragement.
On the boat to Piraeus from Lesvos.
35 unaccompanied children from Lesvos board the Piraeus ship at the last minute.